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Lessons learned from a first half marathon (Guest post)

Sunday morning, after five months of training. I ran the Ottawa Half Marathon, my very first timed race, ever. I had a fantastic time. Here are some things I learned during the race itself.

Cheering really does help. There were spectators nearly the whole route, in crowds in some places, or just standing on corners by themselves, cheering. Posters (“This looks like a lot of work for a free banana”), noise-makers, boom-boxes, families, cheer teams, and even children holding hoses and spraying runners who asked for it. It was noisy and cheerful and overwhelmingly supportive. I must have high-fived a hundred little kids and it felt great. It’s true that cheering made me run faster, hurt less, smile more. I thought it would be weird and that I would be really self-conscious. But it was awesome and I felt like a hero. I even mugged for the race photographers, at kilometer 17, which tells you how much fun I was having.

Looking silly

Go through the mister but maybe pass on the electrolytes. I know I tend to overheat, and undersweat. I hit every mister I could. I also poured water over my hair, grabbing cups at every station, and I poured them over my back, too. I grabbed an orange at kilometer 11. I grabbed a sponge at kilometre 14 and doused myself thoroughly again. Honestly, it made me feel like a superhero of running to grab water from outstretched hands at the aid stations. And it’s really fun to run through all the dropped paper cups, like runner confetti. Crunchy and happy and chaotic. I felt like a badass. I did not try any electrolyte drink (hadn’t trained with it) nor any of the energy bites offered (again, hadn’t trained with it)—I didn’t want to risk any tummy upsets. I feel like I got full use of the aid stations (soaking myself) but didn’t throw my plan out the window (new food and drink).

10-and-1s are some kind of miracle. I was initially skeptical about training for an endurance race but taking, like, 13 one-minute walk breaks along the way. It seemed to kind of miss the point. And yet: I pulled a 6:44 pace overall with the walk breaks which is faster than I could run a continuous 10k in the fall before I broke my foot. Somehow the walk breaks (and I walked FAST) gave me enough of a mental break that it was very easy to run all of my longer intervals between 6:15-6:30, which, again, is not a pace I used to be able to sustain at all. Another unexpected benefit of the 10-and-1s is that everyone passes you while you’re walking, so you cease very quickly to be precious about it. You’ll just catch ‘em later.

Trust the training. My run club program had 90 runs in the training schedule. I did 88 of them. My coaches said that 2:20 was and eminently doable half marathon goal for me. Naturally, I didn’t believe them. So I started the race following the 2:30 pace bunny. After about 1km, though, that just felt way too slow, and so I basically sped up the whole rest of the race and wound up finishing in 2:21:44. So my coaches were right, after all, even if I didn’t trust them. Next time I will trust the training.

Some of it is hard, but then that passes. There was a chunk of time around kilometre 14 where I was questioning my pace, my preparation, my endurance, and my motivation. (There was a gentle hill involved.) I slowed down a wee bit for about a minute, and the feeling passed. There was a bigger chunk of time around kilometre 19, where I could see the finish line … on the other side of the canal, and then I had to run past it, and had to keep running away from it for like another 750m before finally crossing the canal and doubling back. I suddenly became overwhelmed with the idea I couldn’t do it any more. I slowed down for about 30 seconds, and then told myself that I had done tempo runs faster and longer than what I had left. By the time I passed the 20km marker, I forgot that I didn’t think I was going to finish, and I sped up even more. It surprised me that I could feel weak, or tired, or scared, and that if I just kept going for even another minute, the feeling would just … dissipate. And that I could be even stronger after.

Live your dreams of athletic glory. I placed in the bottom 40% no matter which way you slice the results. I am literally, statistically, well below average among finishers overall, in my age group, and in my gender. Nevertheless, I ended my race feeling like a gold-medal Olympian because a) I started in the right corral, and b) I started at the very back of my corral. Since I was reasonably conservative about where I lined up at the start line, and since I ran fast enough to almost have run one corral faster, I actually spent most of the race … passing people. I’m not going to lie: that was really great. I never pass anyone, like ever, in real life. I even found the energy for a kick right at the finish. Look at the photo: it seems like many others are happily ambling in, but I’m in full sprint mode, hilariously.

Looking super serious

I started all this nervous about the distance, the training, the race, whether I was a “real athlete” and whether I would just somehow fail at the last moment. But it turned out great, better than I could have hoped. I’m glad I didn’t let all my fears stop me from trying. So I finished my first half marathon, and it for sure is not going to be my last.

Aimée Morrison is on sabbatical from professoring in new media studies in 2018 and trying to achieve some healthy ratio of words-written to miles-run.

10 thoughts on “Lessons learned from a first half marathon (Guest post)

  1. Fabulous race report. What a great attitude and as someone experimenting with leaving 10-1s behind I’m intrigued at your pitch in their favour. Still, I’ll see how it goes on my 10K summer. I love the half marathon distance too and am pleased to hear how you enjoyed your day. Also, I often use that strategy of reminding myself I’ve run X distance (where X is the remaining distance) tons of times before. Works like a dream. Congrats on your race. And thanks for a fun and exuberant report.
    Great time!

    1. Thanks, Tracy–I remember your post about 10-1s. I never did them until this training with the Running Room. Last summer I was running 15, 16 km training runs continuous distance, and it was okay, but I think for my next race, I’m going to stick with the 10-1s and see if I can get FASTER. I had so, so much fun with this one.

  2. What a great race report. I’m happy that it went so well.

    So true about running through your feelings – if you just keep moving things will keep changing.

  3. This is just what I needed to read! I’ve just started training for my first half marathon and I feel so overwhelmed, by the distance, the hundreds of different training programs and the feeling of not ‘being’ a runner. It feels a little bit doable now 🙂

    1. You can TOTALLY do it! I found the training program I did was really gentle and doable and even fun. I NEVER thought I could go that far (me? the 98 pounds weakling from the ads at the back of the Archie comics digest?) but then that was completely and totally doable as well! And I had fun! And you can totally do it too!

  4. Huge congrats! It looks and sounds like you had a fantastic race. Go you! 🙂

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